The Catalan Referendum

The results of the Catalan “informal referendum” are in, and show that over 80% of the respondents in the referendum have indicated a “Yes, Yes”, which means they want an independent Catalunyan nation. Of course, as pointed out here last weekend, this referendum doesn’t mean a thing, for there is significant selection bias in voting – for people in favour of secession would have had a much higher incentive to turn up on Sunday compared to those that were against.

So what does the Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy do now? Though this vote means nothing, one thing the “massive majority” does is to strengthen the case for the Catalans to press for a more formal referendum, one that is recognised by the Spanish Parliament. What this “massive majority” also does is to embolden the leaders of the Catalan independence movement towards becoming more hardline in their demands.

Spain can ill afford to lose Catalunya, for that is one part of the country whose economy isn’t as badly wrecked as that of the rest of the country. In fact, given complications in terms of membership of the EU, it may not actually be in Catalunya’s interest to be an independent nation – though that is another story. The best solution going forward would be what a referendum would have termed a “Yes, No”, that is to give Catalunya more autonomy as a “state” (right now it’s an “autonomous region”) within Spain.

Other regions of Spain such as the Basque Country have much more control over their finances than Catalunya does, and the Spanish government would do well to make such federalism uniform and give Catalunya similar powers. This would help maintain status quo over national identity, while conceding to the Catalans their biggest demand which is that too much of their tax money is going to fund the rest of Spain. Of course the rest of Spain will take a hit in terms of finances, but it can be worked out so that it is a gradual process and not sudden.

It is also worth examining the reasons behind the current wave of Catalan nationalism. There are two factors – firstly the Catalans resent that their tax money is being spent on the rest of Spain. When this combines with the fact that Catalunya is culturally different from the rest of Spain, and harbours an anger towards Madrid for what can be described as three centuries of “Castilian imperialism”, this leads to secessionist tendencies.

There are important lessons to be learnt from this for other countries which are also multicultural, and where one part (which represents a “different culture”) is significant superior to the other economically. There can be only one solution to keep such countries united – greater federalism, and to give the culturally-different-economically-superior regions belief that they are not being controlled by the “centre”. It is time for multicultural countries to embrace this rather than pretending to rule under the assumption that they are monocultural, and with an iron fist.

Rossetta Stoning Catalan Names

On my penultimate day in Barcelona, I finally figured out how to identify Catalan names, and the equivalents of popular Catalan names in other languages. I did this by a process that I describe as “Rossetta Stoning”.

As you might already know by now, the way James Prinsep deciphered the hieroglyphic script was finding this stone inscription (now known as the “Rossetta Stone”) which had essentially the same text in both hieroglyphic ancient greek (the latter language was known and understood). By comparing the two texts, Prinsep could develop a one-to-one mapping between them and thus decipher the unknown text.

In Barcelona I lived close to “Avinguda de Josep Taradellas”. Now, it is well known that the Spanish form of “Joseph” is “Jose”, so where did Josep come from? Sid Lowe’s book, which I partly read on my way to Barcelona and finished in Barcelona, mentioned that Taradellas was a Catalan politician who got exiled during and after the Spanish Civil War. Lowe talks about Taradellas’s return in 1976, and compared it with Pep Guardiola holding the European Cup at the same venue as Taradellas’s “return rally” (Placa Sant Jaume) a couple of decades later. So that established that Josep is likely to be the Catalan version of Joseph (Pep Guardiola’s real first name is also Josep). But more mapping was needed.

What was this “Pau” that I saw in several names in Barcelona? And was “Joan” definitely Catalan? All these questions were answered when I visited the Barcelona Cathedral, dedicated to the virgin Saint Eulalia, in the middle of the Gotico district of Barcelona. It is an absolutely beautiful and breathtaking cathedral, built in French Gothic style, and done up really well on the inside. And it is free to enter, as long as you don’t go around a service time (in which case you can’t enter at all).

The Barcelona Cathedral reminded me of Hindu temples, where there is the main deity in the middle of the temple, and then you have a number of “subordinate deities” and statues of other gods and goddesses arranged all round the temple. You are supposed to go around it clockwise, paying your respects to all these “peripheral” (in a physical sense) deities before you come round to worship the main deity in the middle.

The Barcelona Cathedral is somewhat similar – there is the crucifix in the middle (below which is the crypt of St. Eulalia) and then there are statues and paintings of various Christian Saints all round. Some of the paintings are really well done, and well preserved. It was a treat going around the Cathedral (I did it clockwise, like you are supposed to do in Hindu temples, though I found several people doing it anti-clockwise – maybe because they drive on the right side of the road in Barcelona). And accompanying each little “garbhagudi” (can’t find a better word ┬áto describe those) was a little sign board indicating the saint whose pictures or statues were there.

And this was the Rossetta Stone that I was looking for, to map Catalan names to Spanish names. All boards were in both Catalan and Spanish, and some were in English, too. This allowed one to build a complete one-to-one mapping of the names.

And so I found that:

  • Josep = Jose = Joseph
  • Pau = Pablo = Paul
  • Pere = Pedro = Peter
  • Joan = Juan = John

And of course, Jordi = Jorge = George.

(in Catalan, btw, J is pronounced as J, and not as H like it is in Spanish).

I know it is a roundabout way to figure out some basic aspects of a country’s culture, but this is only a trivial instance I’m quoting here. Three and a half years back, touring Greece, I managed to learn to read Greek signboards by “Rossetta Stoning” them with comparable English signboards (it helped, of course, that I was familiar with the Greek alphabet thanks to their extensive use in mathematics).

And so I found out that “tau” is used for the hard T sound (as in Tank) while “theta” is used for the “tHa” (as in Thomas, or ratHa) sound (there are no other related t sounds, so Karthik can’t be written accurately in Greek). I also found out that Eta (H) is used to represent the long i sound (as in cheese) while iota (I) is used to represent the short i sound. And so forth.

But there is one constraint to this process – you need to know the script. It helped immensely that both Spanish and Catalan are written in Roman, and that the Greek script is quite popular. When I went to Thailand or Sri Lanka, for example, I didn’t figure out anything at all from their scripts. Or maybe I didn’t try hard enough!